You might think that given the realization that the US was taken to war under false pretenses and the subsequent revelation of all the abuses that occurred during that war, the US public might have at least some second thoughts about the wisdom of the many abhorrent practices that were adopted as part of the generalized war on terror.
That is not the case.
Writing in Foreign Policy, Amy Zegart of Stanford University reports on the results of a new survey that she conducted that finds that Americans are now even more pro-torture than they were under George W. Bush. She asked questions that were identical to those asked in 2005 to see what changes had occurred.
Respondents in 2012 are more pro-waterboarding, pro-threatening prisoners with dogs, pro-religious humiliation, and pro-forcing-prisoners-to-remain-naked-and-chained-in-uncomfortable-positions-in-cold-rooms. In 2005, 18 percent said they believed the naked chaining approach was OK, while 79 percent thought it was wrong. In 2012, 30 percent of Americans thought this technique was right, an increase of 12 points, while just 51 percent thought it was wrong, a drop of 28 points. In 2005, only 16 percent approved of waterboarding suspected terrorists, while an overwhelming majority (82 percent) thought it was wrong to strap people on boards and force their heads underwater to simulate drowning. Now, 25 percent of Americans believe in waterboarding terrorists, and only 55 percent think it’s wrong. The only specific interrogation technique that is less popular now than in 2005, strangely enough, is prolonged sleep deprivation.
Perhaps more interestingly, the percentage of Americans who say they are unwilling to assassinate known terrorists has declined dramatically, from 33 percent in 2005 to just 12 percent today. The public’s enthusiasm for assassinations extends to foreign leaders who harbor them. In both the 2005 and 2012 polls, more than a third of respondents (37 percent and 36 percent, respectively) were willing to kill foreign leaders who “harbor terrorists,” even though it’s not at all clear what “harboring terrorists” really means (is it harboring when a government is too weak or inept to combat terrorists inside its borders?).
But really, should we be surprised? When Bush was president and waging wars and torturing with abandon, at least some Democrats were up in arms, warning of the grave violations to the constitution and human rights that those actions represented. As soon as Barack Obama took office, he halted torture practices such as waterboarding but did not take any actions whatsoever against those who had committed those and other war crimes, essentially condoning such acts by pardoning the perpetrators.
Many of those voices who had expressed horror at torture were silent about his complicity, and remained silent as he raised the stakes and asserted his right to actually murder people just because he, and he alone, felt that they deserved it. Of course, the Republicans were not going to voice any protest since Obama was only doing what they would have loved to do anyway and were probably delighted that Obama’s actions paved the way for the next Republican president to expand on the program of presidential murder.
So given the silence of Democrats on such matters, should we be surprised that support for presidential assassinations has increased as a result of seeming bipartisan approval? Should we also be surprised that Mitt Romney is reportedly urging the adoption of torture methods, that even a Bush-era legal advisor says would be illegal?
Of course, should Romney be elected president and he carries through on his plans, there is little that could stop him since the Democratic party has proven itself to be utterly without credibility on this issue. Now that we have trampled over protections against war crimes, we are unlikely to be deterred by quaint quibbles about legality. Once people have swallowed the proposition that it is fine for the president to actually order the murder of people without any charges or attempt to bring them to trial, they are unlikely to care that much about things like torture.
And it gets worse. Zegart says that 25 percent of Americans would stop the next terrorist plot with a several-hundred-kiloton atomic bomb.
A quarter of all Americans are willing to use nuclear weapons to kill terrorists… To be honest, I threw in the nuclear bomb question on a lark, not expecting to find much. Boy, was I wrong.
The numbers she gets of people who approve of such horrific practices is either close to or greater than the crazification factor of 27%, the estimated size of the US population that seems borderline insane. It seems like there is no proposition, however extreme, that they will not sign onto, secure as they are in the belief that they will never be at the receiving end of such acts.
We are on a dangerous downward spiral and the only question seems to be how much lower we can sink.